Latvia diaries, part one

In 2014 I travelled to Latvia with the Duke of Lancaster’s Second Regiment as part of the United Nations’ ‘Exercise Silver Arrow’ – a massive show of strength in the face of political unrest in Eastern Europe. I wrote a three-day diary. Here is day one.

 @jabberingjourno pictured right with soldiers and press in the Latvian forests @jabberingjourno pictured right with soldiers and press in the Latvian forests

As I write this I am sitting in my camp bed in my quarters (already catching the lingo).

All I can hear is the roar of the generator providing light in our very green blow-up tent, all that separates us from the bitter night in this former Soviet complex of tank barracks at Adazi, Latvia, an hour away from Latvia’s main city Riga. #

A plastic sheet – to denote my female quarters – divides me from the other two reporters, our army photographer and our guide and fixer, Captain Peter Barry.

The bleak, concrete structures are quiet tonight, only a faint rustle from beyond our tent gives away the life that is teeming beyond. Meanwhile, key teams remain at camp, directing operations and maintaining this temporary settlement on desolate sandy land surrounded by the Latvian forests. It is eerily quiet tonight as beyond, in those trees, teams of soldiers are starting their realistic war effort that will test them to their very limits.

Here in camp, apart from routine patrols and individuals hurrying around with torches, most soldiers are settling for the night ready for an early start and a hectic two days. Exercise Silver Arrow has begun.

I am here with 2Lancs, who are here representing the British army as part of a NATO exercise Silver Arrow – in its very basic form it’s a realistic war game. A large scale, finely tuned, essential, piece of war rehearsal. A giant game of laser quest, if you will.

Of course, it is much more than that. This NATO-led exercise is a massive show of unity, a display of strength and ultimately a huge act of reassurance for Latvia itself and for neighbouring Estonia – for the NATO alliance.

The timing of this show of brute strength could not be more key.

This weekend marks the Latvian elections and tensions are high.

The Harmony party, led by the mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov and backed by ethnic Russians, is making a bid for increased political power. But after the Kremlin’s recent actions in Ukraine, many native Latvians are worried the country’s large Russian speaking minority could give Moscow – Vladimir Putin – a route into the Baltic state.

This is a nervous country.

The second battalion of the Duke of Lancaster regiment (2Lancs) are ground troops. Based in Weeton, near Blackpool, and led by Commanding Officer Hamish Cormack, they fight with strategy, with guns and on their feet. But as we arrived at camp, the first things that greeted us were the Latvian and US armies’ array of tanks and armoured vehicles. They are two of the other nations represented here. Estonia and Norway are also taking part.

After a brief tour around camp, we were introduced to the key elements of life on camp. At the facilities, a giant row of portable toilets, the importance of handwashing is stated. Cleanliness is vital here. Just one allocated to females like myself – though I haven’t spotted another woman yet. The canteen consists of an organised kitchen and rows of temporary tables. Tonight we ate like kings on fried chicken, chips and gravy, although almost entirely in the dark. Tomorrow night we’ll be on rations.

Then to bed, where I faced sleep on a camp-bed and a mattress made of a cardboard strip.

Worried our sleeping bags may not be up to the task, we are also provided with ‘bouncing bombs’ – thick green sleeping bags to keep us warm.

They do the job, though I can’t sleep over the loud thrum of the generator and thoughts of thoughts of tank warfare in days gone by.

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